Living with an emotional or psychological disability can be exhausting, making even simple day-to-day tasks very difficult.
While they still may not receive enough recognition, awareness of these kinds of conditions is growing every year, and mental health professionals are always exploring new treatment methods.
Emotional support animals can be a real lifeline for people with mental illnesses and are often used alongside other treatments methods as an alternative therapy.
But what are emotional support animals, exactly? Which laws cover them? And how do you go about getting one? We’ll cover all these questions and more in this article.
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Definition of an Emotional Support Animal
An emotional support animal (ESA for short) is an assistance animal that helps people with mental illnesses or emotional disabilities to manage in their day-to-day lives. ESAs don’t need any special training, and they don’t need to be “registered” or “certified”—they just need to have a special bond with their owner.
How Are ESAs Different from Service Animals?
Service animals and ESAs are often confused, and it’s easy to see why. They are both assistance animals, and some of the laws, which we’ll go into below, apply to both of them. However, there are a few important differences between service animals and ESAs.
Firstly, while many breeds of animal can become ESAs (though cats and dogs are the most common), only dogs can become service animals.
Secondly, while ESAs don’t need any particular training, service animals must be specially trained to perform a specific task for their handlers. These tasks can include acting as a guide dog for people with visual impairments, doing mobility-related tasks for wheelchair users, or alerting people who have epilepsy to oncoming seizures.
Looking to Get an ESA? It’s All About the ESA Letter!
As we said above, ESAs don’t need any special training, and they don’t need to be “certified” or “registered”. However, that doesn’t mean that just anyone can call their pet an emotional support animal. The only way to get an ESA is to be prescribed one by a licensed mental health professional who is treating you for a diagnosed mental health condition. This is done by issuing an ESA letter, which serves as proof of your need for an ESA.
ESA letters are valid for one year from the date they are issued, and must be written on letterhead paper from a medical doctor or licensed mental health professional. They must also contain the following information:
- That you have been diagnosed with a mental or emotional disability
- That your emotional support animal is a part of your ongoing treatment plan and that it helps you to complete daily tasks
- The issuer’s licensing information, including place and date of issue and license number.
Watch Out for Fake ESA Letters
Unfortunately, as emotional support animals become a more popular treatment option for people with conditions like anxiety, acute stress disorder, PTSD, and depression, the number of unscrupulous websites looking to cash in have increased too.
Look out for any website that offers to certify your pet as an ESA or add it to an “official” ESA register: neither of these things is recognized, and they are just a waste of money.
Another thing to look out for are websites that offer to issue you an ESA letter without asking any questions, and without you consulting with a licensed mental health professional.
While these so-called ESA letters may look the part, they are not valid either, as they are not issued by a licensed mental health professional who is treating you.
Only trust websites that offer to put you in contact with a licensed mental health professional in your state, who will only issue an ESA letter if they believe that you could benefit from an emotional support animal, and only then after a consultation with you.
A fake ESA letter can cause a lot more hassle than it’s worth in terms of canceled travel plans or having to move house: more on that in the next section, where we cover the laws about ESAs.
Emotional Support Animals and the Law
There are two main laws that give extra rights to people with ESAs, which we’ll go into in this section.
However, it should first be noted that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which allows people with service dogs to bring them anywhere that members of the public are permitted (like shops, hotels, and restaurants), does not apply to ESAs: it only covers service dogs.
Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)
Under the ACAA, people traveling on commercial airlines with service dogs or emotional support dogs can bring the animal into the cabin with them free of charge, and without putting them in a carrier, regardless of the airline’s pet policy.
Most airlines now require passengers traveling with ESAs to show an ESA letter, and some other restrictions apply to ESAs too: certain airlines restrict the definition to dogs and cats only, and all airlines reserve the right to refuse dirty, badly behaved, or dangerous ESAs.
Fair Housing Act (FHA)
The FHA allows people with service dogs or ESAs to keep their assistance animals in rented accommodation, even where pets are forbidden. The FHA also covers on-campus college accommodation. Again, some landlords or housing providers may need to see a valid ESA letter.
What Types of Animals Make the Best ESAs?
While any pet can become an ESA, dogs and cats are the most common for a number of reasons. You’ll often see ESA dogs and cats in apartments, homes, and accompanying their owner on a flight!
Firstly, while people with ESAs are not protected by law to be able to bring them into shops and restaurants, there are many more businesses that allow regular pet dogs than pigs or horses, for example, meaning that an emotional support dog can go more places and ultimately help its owner more.
Secondly, as we said above, some airlines will only accept emotional support dogs and cats, meaning that traveling is easier with one of these two species.
Thirdly, while the emotional benefit of being around dogs and cats has been widely scientifically proven, the benefits of being around reptiles, birds, or farm animals is not as well researched.
For these reasons, many mental health professionals will be hesitant to prescribe an ESA that is not a dog or a cat without very good reason to do so.
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